Ian Soutar talks to a Sheffield writer whose first novel out this week has caused a ripple of excitement in the publishing world
AS he prepares to launch his debut novel at Waterstones in Orchard Square next week Gavin Extence finds himself being hailed as one of this year’s rising stars in fiction
The Universe Versus Alex Woods is getting the kind of attention that first-time writers crave. Publishers Hodder & Stoughton have released it as one of its flagship new year novels, it is one of the Waterstones Eleven, the bookseller’s selection of this year’s most exciting debut reads and it will soon feature on Simon Mayo’s Radio 2 Book Club.
It is a darkly comic tale which begins with the 17-year-old eponymous hero being stopped at Dover customs with 113 grams of marijuana, an urn full of ashes on the passenger seat, and the nation in uproar.
We are then taken back through events leading up to this point in the strange life of Alex, described in the first person.
“Pretty much the first thing I hit on was the voice before I had the plot details,” says the writer who lives at Meersbrook. “I knew what I wanted with it and how it sounded.
“It belongs to a tradition of writing and people have generously likened it to Mark Haddon (who wrote the award-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). There’s something about a teenage narrator that gives an interesting perspective on adulthood. They are on the cusp looking in on that world.
“A lot of the teen stuff was the easiest bit to write,” he continues. “It’s not autobiographical but it’s a development of several experiences. I thought it might be a bit anachronistic because it’s a while since I was that age. But I discovered the more I wrote it and the way people have responded there are things from that period that are universal and don’t change – the fact of being hypersensitive and the difficulties between you and your peers and becoming aware of social hierarchy and class and the difference that can make in life.”
The writer says that Alex’s determination to go his own way was one of the things that marked him out as different from most kids of that age. “I would include myself among teenagers desperate to fit in. I wanted to get that dual perspective of recognising the ridiculousness of many teenage preoccupations and at the same time showing the cruelty and pain.”
One of the reasons that Alex behaves unusually is because when he was young he had to undergo brain surgery after being hit by a meteor landing on earth, Where did that idea come from?
“It comes out of my interests as an amateur astronomer,” Extence explains. “When I started to research it I found that it has happened. When you think there are seven billion people on the planet it is inevitable. I wanted to find something dramatic that marked him out as separate and unique and that was a good way of doing it.”
The 31-year-old who grew up in Lincolnshire came to Sheffield to start an English degree in 2000 and later studied film which might suggest his ambitions lay in another direction.
“I did a Phd in film at Sheffield University and in hindsight it was a way of killing time because I graduated at the beginning of the recession and couldn’t find a job,” he says. “I had always loved writing and I started doing it seriously to fill up the empty days. I had a supportive wife who said I should commit 100% to writing. That was a turning point and within 18 months I had written it.”
He delivered the final draft last April and since then his life has changed.
“In July our daughter was born and I have had to learn a new working routine. Since then I have been surviving on very little sleep. The eight months sped by.”
From the outset publishers got behind it. “There was a huge amount of support early on and a lot of people genuinely loved it. Most of the people working in publishing do it because they love books and there’s been an enthusiasm and the weight of that has spurred me on in my humble ambitions. I wrote with a mixture of blind optimism and knowing how hard it is to make your way. I wasn’t expecting this, I thought even if I got published that writing for me would not be my profession but a semi-sideline.”
He secured a two-book deal with Hodder and is at the early stages of his second book, but that is on hold while he works on publicity for his first.
“There’s been quite a lot of writing blogs and paper and online stuff and radio interviews. Waterstone’s have lined up a programme for the end of February, It’s all a bit surreal.”
There will be a launch for The Universe Versus Alex Woods (Hodder and Stoughton, £14.99 at Waterstones on Wednesday at 6.30pm.